Under Pressure: Paul Stastny

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This post is part of Blues Day on PHT…

On the opening day of free agency in 2014, the Blues signed free agent center Paul Stastny to a four-year, $28 million contract. It instantly made him the highest-paid forward on the team — since surpassed by Vladimir Tarasenko — and, in announcing the deal, GM Doug Armstrong raved about Stastny’s hockey IQ and how he “thinks the game strong.”

It was expected the gifted playmaker would become St. Louis’ top-line center.

But things haven’t exactly gone to plan.

The Stastny era is now three years old, and the major theme throughout has been health — specifically, his lack thereof. He’s missed 42 contests over that time, and failed to crack the 70 games-played plateau in each of the last two seasons. Unsurprisingly, his production has tailed off. After racking up 60 points in his final year in Colorado, he’s gone 46-49-40 with the Blues, and now heads into a contract year facing a number of major questions.

Among them:

Is Stastny a No. 1 center?

Blues head coach Mike Yeo certainly thinks so, describing the 31-year-old as such when Stastny got hurt back in February.

“He’s usually the first guy over the boards for a power-play faceoff or the first guy over the boards for a penalty-kill faceoff, and those are key,” Yeo said, per the Blues website. “He’s a very important player for us. You don’t take out a top-line center from too many lineups where they don’t feel that.”

The Blues certainly paid him like a 1C. At $7 million per, he’s making more annually than the likes of Patrice Bergeron, Nicklas Backstrom, John Tavares and Jeff Carter. What’s more, the Blues don’t have much depth down the middle. Patrik Berglund has proven to be a decent, if unspectacular, option that scored 23 goals last year, but his ceiling is a 3C that can be pushed into the 2C role in a pinch.

Jori Lehtera, who underwhelmed last season, was flipped to Philly in the Brayden Schenn trade, but the Blues might have the same problem with Schenn that the Flyers did —  is he a center, or better suited on the wing?

Youngsters Robby Fabbri and Ivan Barbashev can also play the middle, but aren’t yet considered full-time guys. Fabbri’s coming off a torn ACL.

So is Stastny a No. 1? Traditionally speaking, maybe not. In St. Louis, maybe so.

Do the Blues want to keep him?

Given what we just laid out, probably. But it would have to be at the right price.

Next July, Armstrong has some work to do and not a ton of cap space to do it with. The most pressing contracts will be for a pair of young RFAs — Fabbri, and d-man Joel Edmundson — while Stastny’s the lone UFA of note.

If Stastny’s willing to take a significant haircut, his return could happen. Signing with St. Louis back in ’14 was essentially a homecoming, as he grew up in the city and went to Chaminade College Prep School. Both his father and brother previously played with the Blues.

The real question, it would seem, is if Stastny fits with the direction of the club. Armstrong hasn’t been shy about turning his team over to the younger generation over the last few years, while cutting ties with veterans in a myriad of ways.

Just consider what happened to Stastny’s former running mates up front. Lehtera was traded Philly, T.J. Oshie was flipped to Washington, while David Backes and Troy Brouwer were allowed to walk in free agency.

Could this be another Kevin Shattenkirk situation?

Two years ago, Armstrong opted to keep Backes and Brouwer — both UFAs — past the deadline, and the Blues responded with a playoff run to the Western Conference Final. But that summer, both assets were lost for no return.

Last year, Armstrong took a different tact, opting to flip Shattenkirk, a pending UFA, at the deadline for a package that included promising forward Zach Sanford and a first-round pick (the Blues later used that pick to acquire Schenn).

“We are not in the business of trading good players for prospects when your team has a chance to win the Cup,” Armstrong said at the time, per the Post-Dispatch. “This team now has to get in on its own. It’s going to be more difficult, but if we get in, you always have a chance to win.”

One wonders if last year’s experience might’ve changed Armstrong’s outlook.

All things considered, the Blues fared well following Shattenkirk’s departure. They finished third in the Central Division, and upended 106-point Minnesota in the opening playoff round before bowing out to the eventual conference champ, Nashville, in Round 2.

The big difference between Shattenkirk and Stastny, though, is the depth at their respective positions. Parting ways with Shattenkirk was made easier by the presences of Alex Pietrangelo and Jay Bouwmeester, and the emergence of Edmundson and Colton Parayko.

At center, the Blues don’t have such options.